Things You Never Knew About Umbrellas

We’ve all been saved by umbrellas. From the sudden downpour of rain, from the scorching heat of the sun—it’s a handy contraption that protects us from some of the challenges nature throws our way. We’ve all seen our fair share of ingenious and downright quirky umbrellas—the end products of a very long process of invention and re-invention—that its remarkable origin is hardly remembered. It is, for example, interesting to note that umbrellas, though known for use against the weeping skies, were first invented as protection from the sun, not the rain. But before we go any further, let’s take a look at the beginnings of this convenient and fun necessity.

Historical Umbrellas

To kick things off, let’s clear up the difference between umbrellas and parasols. Though some people use the terms interchangeably, parasols are especially designed to protect from the sun. Therefore, some parasols are not waterproof. Aside from those terms, umbrellas are also commonly known as sunshades, brolly (UK slang), parapluie, bumbershoot (US), and umbrolly (UK slang).

Back to the history!

Written records reveal that retractable umbrellas have been around since 21 AD, when Wang Mang had one designed for a ceremonial four-wheeled carriage. Wang Mang’s carriage umbrella had bendable joints which enabled them to be extended or retracted.

In Ancient Greece, the parasol was an indispensable adjunct to a lady of fashion in the late 5th century BC. Aristophanes mentions it among the common articles of female use. Ancient Romans also dubbed that parasols were usually used by women and effeminate men. It was used by people to defend themselves against the heat. The umbrellas they used in ancient Rome were made of skin or leather, and capable of being lowered at will. Those parasol-bearing servants you often see in period movies? Ancient Rome. According to ancient records, it was highly likely that bearing parasols over their mistresses was a post of honor among maid-servants.

In Asia, particularly in the Indian subcontinent, the Sanskrit epic depicts the umbrella as a gift from the sun to Renuka, the wife of the skilled bow shooter Jamagdani. In his accounts on his voyage to the East, 17th-century French gem merchant and traveler Jean-Baptiste Tavernier described the Mogul’s throne as having two umbrellas on each side. Part of the king’s title is “King of the white elephant, and Lord of the twenty-four umbrellas.”

In the 18th and 19th centuries, Keirsey’s Dictionary describes an umbrella as a “screen commonly used by women to keep off rain.” In China, people started to waterproof their paper parasols by waxing it. The shift from bigger, heavier umbrellas to the lighter, more portable ones we use today is due to the substitution of silk and gingham for the more cumbersome oiled silk.

The first “working folding umbrella” however, was patented only in 1969, by Bradford E. Philipps, the owner of Totes Incorporated of Loveland, Ohio.

Umbrellas and its functions

In terms of functions, umbrellas are constantly being developed to obtain maximum durability. Ideas for umbrellas are so prevalent that Totes, the largest American umbrella producer, has stopped accepting unsolicited proposals. According to Totes’ umbrella development director, “it’s difficult to come up with an umbrella that hasn’t been already done. And why, not—the demand is high!” The annual market for umbrellas in the United States alone is around $350 million!

Aside from the ones we can carry, umbrellas as tools to protect people from the sudden changes in the weather has also carried on to architecture. In the 1950s, Frei Otto transformed the universally used individual umbrella into an item of lightweight architecture by stretching the loaded membrane of the funnel-shaped umbrella under compression-loaded bars.

While most umbrellas and parasols are designed for personal use, nowadays it’s also common to see ones that are fixed, used with patio tables or other outdoor furniture, or as points of shade on a sunny beach.

Aside from weather protection, umbrellas are also commonly used in photography. Umbrellas with a reflective inside are used by photographers as a diffusion device when employing artificial lighting, and as a glare shield and shade. This technique is more commonly used in portrait photography.

Fun Umbrellas

No less than 11 patents have been filed for umbrellas that are incorporated into a backpack of some kind. If you think that umbrellas fashioned into hats are brand new inventions—they’re not. They’ve been around since 1987!

Aside from those more common umbrella innovations, we’ve come across these interesting umbrella designs.

Having troubles with visibility while using umbrellas? Check out this Goggles Umbrella!

Japan came up with a full body umbrella: one that would shield not only your head but your entire body!

Taiwanese designers have found a way to spread joy and smiles through this wheel seal umbrella! Puddles of water become instant inkpads!

Find wit and humor even when it’s pouring with Tibor Kalman’s cloud umbrella design. It gives you the view of a blue sky even on a very gray day.

Indeed, beyond the amusing designs of modern umbrellas, when we think about them, we think of how practical they are. It’s one of mankind’s most ingenious innovations, which is why it is continuously developed, to this day. Fundamentally, it is our way of protecting ourselves from things that are supposed to be out of our control. Umbrellas represent our resilience. ( If you want to see the complete list of unique umbrellas , click here.)

More umbrella trivia

  • The first umbrella shop was called “James Smith and Sons” which opened in 1830—and is still located up to this day at 53 New Oxford St., London.
  • The umbrella was the inspiration for the invention of the parachute.
  • Some British soldiers took umbrellas with them into battles of the Napoleonic wars.
  • Fans have noted that the use of the “yellow umbrella” to symbolize The Mother, in the popular TV series How I Met Your Mother, was due to the fact that it is also a symbol for cervical cancer, which fans suspect is the illness that The Mother dies of in 2024.

Written by:

Ginelle Petterson

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